I have another Sunday treat for you campers: Anne Cushman has given in to my blandishments to share her insights on the writing life with us here at Author! Author!
I’m very excited about Anne’s guest blog — and not just because she has a fabulous novel coming out this week. Enlightenment for Idiots is due to be released on April 15by Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Random House.
You may perhaps have heard of them.
The book’s already for sale on the publisher’s website (at a slight discount over bookstores). It’s also available on Amazon, of course, as are the many books in which her excellent nonfiction has been anthologized:
The lady has some serious writing chops, in short, and the advance press for the novel shows that she’s been using her writing time wisely. Take a gander:
“A hilarious take on the quest for truth that manages to respect the journey while skewering many of the travelers… Cushman brings devastating wit and a thorough knowledge of her subject to her first novel, evoking an India that fills the senses and stirs the spirit even as it occasionally turns the stomach.”
“Cushman brilliantly interweaves snippets of Buddhist teachings with the mishaps and successes of their journey, infusing the book with wisdom and humor.”
~Booklist, starred review
“Cushman’s send-up of the New Age American dream is both thoughtful and wise.”
~The Shambhala Sun
The amazing thing about this first novel is that you feel as though you are reading about your own life. The details are so honest; the writing so clear and sure-footed, sprinkled with great humor. Kudos to Cushman–this is a wonderful debut.”
~Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
Whetted your interest, haven’t they? Here’s a brief synopsis:
Nearing age thirty, Amanda thought she’d be someone by now. Instead, she’s just herself: an ex-nanny, wannabe yogini who cranks out “For Idiots” travel guides just to scrape by. Yes, she has her sexy photographer boyfriend, but he’s usually gone—shooting a dogsled race in Alaska or a vision quest in Peru—or just hooking up with other girls. However, she’s sure her new assignment, “Enlightenment for Idiots,” will change everything; now she will become the serene, centered woman she was meant to be. After some breakup sex, she’s off to India to find a new, more spiritual life.
What she finds, though, is an ashram run by investment bankers, a yoga master who trashes her knee, and a guru with a weakness for fashion models. She escapes a tantra party at the Taj Hotel, has a nasty argument outside the cave where the Buddha used to meditate, then agonizes through the ten-day meditation retreat that’s supposed to make her feel better.
No, India is not what she’d pictured. But she finds a friend in Devi Das, a red-headed sadhu who refers to himself as “we.” And when a holy lunatic on the street offers her an enigmatic blessing, Amanda realizes a new life might be in store for her—just not the one she was expecting.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? As if all that were not enough, Anne’s also running an essay contest to celebrate the book’s release. So if any of you out there have a great yoga romance story to share, scuttle on over to her website with all possible dispatch.
Please join me, everybody, in welcoming guest blogger Anne Cushman. Take it away, Anne!
A few weeks ago — right around the time it really began to sink in that my novel, Enlightenment for Idiots, was going to hit the stores soon, and that people might actually be going to read it, including such people as my ex-husband, my fellow Buddhist meditation teachers, and my 86-year-old Catholic retired-Army-general father — I had a vivid anxiety dream.
In the dream, I was skating around a roller rink on white fur-trimmed roller blades, dressed only in a black velvet bikini. I caught a glimpse of myself in a floor-length mirror, and — at 44 years old — I looked totally hot.
But two thoughts flashed through my mind — is this get-up really suitable for this stage of my life? And what are my colleagues at Spirit Rock Meditation Center going to think of it?
As I scribbled the dream in my notebook the next morning, I clearly saw the fear it reflected. As a longtime practitioner and teacher of Buddhist meditation and yoga, was it really appropriate for me to be publishing a sexy, irreverent romp about a screwed-up young wannabe yoga teacher looking for enlightenment in India while stumbling through an increasingly disastrous love life?
It was bad enough that the novel poked fun at many of the sacred cows of the spiritual world, including some of its most august teachers. It was even worse that just about every one of my ex-boyfriends would imagine that he recognized pieces of himself in Matt, the main character’s charming, creative, and noncommittal lover.
But what if people actually thought that the protagonist, Amanda — a funny but painfully insecure young woman who is desperately seeking a spiritual band-aid for her chronic sense of emptiness — was based on me?
But the dream also points to one of the basic principles of good writing. If you’re going to touch people in any way — and particularly if you’re going to make them laugh — you have to risk revealing yourself. You have to forget about what’s appropriate, and what other people might think, and be willing to be ridiculous in your honesty and vulnerability.
If you stay in the safety zone, your words will never reach below the surface, and the most you can hope for is a superficial chuckle.
When I’m writing, the voice I aspire to is the voice I use when I’m hanging out with my very best friends — the ones to whom I can say absolutely anything and know that it will be heard, if not agreed with. It’s that intimate, self-revealing voice that speaks the truth — even when it’s totally making things up.
Because even fiction — especially fiction — works best when it rings true.
While the plot and characters of “Enlightenment for Idiots” are invented, the novel was, paradoxically, an opportunity for me to speak more honestly about the absurdities of the spiritual journey than I’d ever been able to in my nonfiction work.
So as a writer, how do you find that intimate, honest voice? For me, one shortcut is to write to my best friends — literally.
When I first began writing personal essays (after years as a journalist), each draft began as an email to someone I loved and trusted — most often, to my older sister Kathleen, who’s also a writer. “I’m not sure how to tell this story,” I’d begin. “But I’d really like to write about the time that I…”
And off I’d go, telling my story to someone who loved me, and who would continue to love me even when I shared with her my most embarrassing moments, my most inappropriate desires, my wackiest observations.
After a few emails on that subject, I’d cobble the pieces together, cut off the fat, and — presto — an essay that made people feel like they were hanging out on their bed with their best buddy, laughing, bitching, and crying about their all-too-human lives.
Of course, I’d have to do some filtering at that stage — and for that, it’s good to have someone who will act as a reality check before you send your finished piece off to your editor.
For instance, maybe I really don’t want to tell you — a bunch of total strangers — about the time in my 20s I sat in my car before knocking on my date’s door (a last-minute dinner invitation that I hadn’t had time to dress for) and decided that I should probably take off my ratty old bra now, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it if he undressed me later. So I removed my bra and dropped it behind my car seat, and then went in for my date; but unbeknownst to me, the bra hook snagged on my sweater, so I walked into his living room trailing my bra behind me like a grubby tail.
Maybe that story’s just too embarrassing, and should be cut. On the other hand, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a story I can give to a fictional character. Or maybe I won’t give the story itself, but just the feeling behind the story — and then invent the details that go along with that story.
In fact, maybe that’s what I already did. As a reader, you’ll never know.
But one thing I know for certain: as a writer, you’ll never get anywhere if you censor yourself before you write something down.
And then, if what you say is too revealing — if it crosses the line where the readers sense of sympathy with you or your character turns into pity and revulsion — your trusted best-friend reader, the one you’re emailing your drafts to, will let you know.
But don’t worry about that now.
For now, put on that black bikini. Try on those roller skates. Know that we all have cellulite, just like you — like you, we all worry that our thighs are too fat, our breasts too small, our butts too droopy. And when we see you out there, skating around in that rink in all your human imperfection, it gives us incredible joy.
Thanks for those lovely and inspirational words, Anne!
Remember, everybody, Anne Cushman’s Enlightenment for Idiots (Shaye Areheart Books, 2008) will be coming out this week. You can read more about it at www.enlightenmentforidiots.com, or race on over to Amazon to buy it.
As a writer and teacher of yoga and meditation, Anne Cushman explores the poignant intersection between the lofty ideals of spiritual practice and the gritty, comical, and heartbreaking details of ordinary life. She is a contributing editor to both Yoga Journal and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the coauthor of From Here to Nirvana, a seeker’s guide to spiritual India.
Her essays have appeared in the the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Salon.com, and have been anthologized in Best Buddhist Writing 2004 and 2006, A Woman’s Path: Best Women’s Spiritual Travel Writing, Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Tales, and other books. She co-directs the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California; and lives in nearby Fairfax with her seven-year-old son, Skye.